Corn Commentary

Have to Have a Farm Bill

naaj-vilsack“I believe we will have a bill this year because we have to have a bill this year.”

That’s what Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said to agricultural journalists meeting in Washington DC. While he is confident there will be a “food, farm and jobs” bill sometime this year, he’s not sure about exactly when that might be. “I don’t know when Congress is going to act,” said the secretary. “I know what the ag chairs have said and that is that they’re anxious to get started now.”

That seems to be the general consensus among the policy watchers on Capitol Hill but that’s just about the same thing that was being said last year at this time. The committees were starting to work and the industry was feeling confident that the work would be getting done before the 2008 bill expired in September. Obviously, it didn’t happen.

Secretary Vilsack had two main reasons why we “have to have a bill” this year. “Producers need solutions and a five year plan to make decisions, but there are certain parts of the bill that will resolve sticky issues for us” the Brazilian WTO case regarding cotton being the primary example.

Of course, we had those same two reasons last year, but it was still okay to “kick the can” down the road for awhile. Hopefully it will be different this year. There has to be a point where the road dead ends.

Listen to Vilsack’s remarks and Q&A from reporters here: Secretary Vilsack

Ethanol Myths Living Large in Florida

A bill has been introduced in the Florida legislature that would repeal the state’s Renewable Fuel Standard Act.

beachCurrently, the Florida law requires that all gasoline sold or offered for sale by a terminal supplier, importer, blender or wholesaler in Florida contain 9-10 percent ethanol, or other alternative fuel, by volume. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach wants to see that ended and he pulled out every one of the ethanol myths during a recent hearing to make his case. Here are some of his comments:

“One of the studies that I read indicates that the average Floridian pays a $75 per year ‘ethanol tax’ because though a gallon of ethanol may cost less than a gallon of fuel it doesn’t take you as far because the fuel density of ethanol is one-third less than that of unblended gasoline.”

“I think we can send the message in Florida that ethanol mandates are not sound public policy, that they’re energy losers, they harm the environment, they increase food prices and they harm engines.”

“On a recent trip to Rwanda, former president Bill Clinton specifically cited ethanol mandates as a reason for food riots and starving people, the poorest people on this planet.”

“The impact of federal subsidies artificially deflate the price of ethanol.”

Listening to the hearing, including the questions asked by other lawmakers and Rep. Gaetz’s answers, it is clear that they need some serious ethanol educating. In a continuation of that same hearing, testimony was presented that refuted the remarks made by Gaetz, but the bill passed through committee anyway and is being taken up by a state Senate committee this week.

Listen to some of the hearing: Florida hearing

The point was made in testimony opposing the bill that the reason such ethanol requirements have been put in place is because of the stranglehold oil companies have on the U.S. transportation fuel market. It’s particularly ironic that Florida is trying to help the same industry that created an environmental disaster on the pristine white sand beaches of the Gulf coast with the BP oil spill, a disaster which cost billions of dollars the state is still working to recoup from BP. You’ll never see beaches closed from an ethanol spill but don’t try to confuse these lawmakers with the facts.

Speculation About RINS Abounds

“RINsanity” is fueling speculation about speculators driving up the price of the credits given to refiners upon the purchase of renewable fuels under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which some are claiming increased gasoline prices earlier this year.

rinsanityRep. John Shimkus (R-IL) recently spoke on the House floor about the volatility of Renewable Identification Numbers (RINS) prices this year. “There are questions that need to be asked on why such swift dramatic price shifts are being reported in the market,” he added. “Are speculators at work? There is an excess of over two billion RINs. Why is that not proving and providing stability? I encourage the media to ask these types of questions, but to simply jump on and blame the renewable fuels sector is incorrect.”

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) believes speculation is the cause of higher RINS prices this year. “I don’t know whether there is a conspiracy on the part of oil companies or whether it’s just plain old speculation but it doesn’t seem like it’s the marketplace,” he said.

A new analysis conducted by Informa Economics, Inc. released last week shows that RINS are not a factor in higher retail gasoline prices. Renewable Fuels Association vice president of research and analysis Geoff Cooper, says RINS only exist because the oil companies asked for them. “The EPA allowed third parties with no blending obligation to participate in the RIN trading market and we believe that much of the volatility that we’ve seen in recent weeks can be explained, at least in part, by speculative activity.”

Cooper says it is easy to disprove the correlation between higher RINS prices and retail gas price increases. “If you overlay retail gas prices, what you see very clearly is that gas prices jumped long before RIN prices began to increase.”

RIN credits were seven cents at the beginning of the year, but spiked in March at over a dollar for two trading days. The average this year, according to Cooper, is less than 40 cents. The Senate Energy Committee is expected to hold a hearing to look into the RINS price volatility.

Improving Corn for a Hungry Planet

Growing corn in areas where water is scarce and soil is toxic may soon be a reality thanks to research being done at major universities.

purdue-cornPurdue University scientists recently received a grant of over $1 million to find ways to increase corn tolerance to heat, which would help farmers in this country when we have a drought like last year, but would be a real boon for farmers in Asia. The work will be done through the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Purdue professor Mitch Tuinstra (pictured) said finding ways to grow maize in the hotter climates of South Asia could help combat malnutrition and hunger issues in those countries. Understanding ways to adapt the crop to heat and drought could also help growers in the United States where climate change is expected to increase stress on crops. “There is a lot of concern about how climate change will affect crops, but we know almost nothing about thermal tolerance in corn,” Tuinstra said.

cornell-cornMeanwhile, over at Cornell University, researchers are working to grow stress-tolerant crops on formerly non-farmable land with high levels of toxic aluminum in the soil.

Plant scientists searched the maize genome for clues as to why some plants can tolerate toxic aluminum and found three copies of the same gene known to affect aluminum tolerance, according to new USDA/Cornell-led research.

Aluminum toxicity comes close to rivaling drought as a food-security threat in critical tropical food-producing regions.

Acidic soils dissolve aluminum from clays in the soil, making it toxic to plant roots in half the world’s arable lands. The MATE1 gene, which was found in triplicate in aluminum-tolerant maize, turns on in the presence of aluminum ions and expresses a protein that transports citric acid from root tips into the soil, which binds to and locks up aluminum, thereby preventing it from harming roots.

More Ethanol Plants Recovering Corn Oil

Corn oil recovery is helping the bottom line of ethanol producers with tight margins, according to a new report from the Energy Information Administration.

eiaBeginning in summer 2012, the prices of ethanol and corn reached levels where production costs at relatively simple ethanol plants exceeded revenue. These simple plants, which are not able to recover corn oil, make up a diminishing portion of the ethanol industry. Reacting to the market conditions, several ethanol plants temporarily shut down. By January 2013, the number of idled ethanol plants had grown to at least 20.

Relatively simple ethanol plants produce ethanol and distillers grains from corn. More advanced plants are able to recover other products, like corn oil, from a portion of the distillers grains. Ethanol plants with corn oil recovery units are able to earn more revenue, so they usually have higher profit margins than plants without corn oil recovery, even if their production costs are slightly higher.

According to the EIA report, corn oil recovery is one of several strategies that the ethanol industry is developing to improve margins. “Others involve switching to processes that are more advantageous under the renewable fuels standard (RFS). For instance, Aemetis in Keyes, California, is changing its feedstock from corn to sorghum and replacing its natural gas consumption with biomass. Other companies plan to produce butanol rather than ethanol, or integrate cellulosic feedstock, such as wood waste or corn stover (e.g., leaves, stalks, and leftover cobs after the corn harvest). These approaches allow their products to qualify as advanced biofuels under the RFS, a category that specifically excludes ethanol produced from cornstarch, which has been the dominant feedstock for the U.S. ethanol industry.”

Read more here.

Scorched Earth Strategies Burn Farm Families

Whether critics of biotechnology in agriculture are being intentionally obtuse or honestly believe that it is acceptable to rage against proven technology while basing accusations in willful ignorance, the current backlash against Section 733 of the Fiscal Year 2013 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies Appropriations Act has painted an inaccurate picture of the provision and panicked many sensible Americans. Anti-biotech vigilantes using a truly ridiculous combination of ominous implications and arguments based in their own carefully cultivated ignorance have misled the masses and, in doing so, furthered the lack of understanding that makes many fearful of their food.

Section 733, in its essence, protects American family farmers who, due to frivolous lawsuits based in procedural arguments and directed at major corporations, could face serious economic harm. The provisions of this Act would assure farmers that they could plant and harvest crops developed through biotechnology already approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under a temporary stewardship agreement in the event of litigation against the agencies decision.

In simple terms, Section 733 removes a potentially significant financial risk facing farmers. Today, the regulatory process for biotechnology leaves the family farmers who purchase seeds approved by their government vulnerable to costly losses should an activist group choose to legally challenge the government’s decision. Without this provision, these men and women, acting in good faith, become collateral damage in an ideological battle between those who embrace and eschew science.

The need for such protection has been made evident over the past several years as opponents of agricultural biotechnology have repeatedly filed lawsuits against the USDA on procedural grounds. In filing these suits, the anti-activists aim to disrupt the regulatory process and, in a broader fashion, undermine the science-based regulation of biotech ag products. These lawsuits strain USDA resources and delay the approval of new, innovative products America’s farmers need to grow abundant, affordable food and remain internationally competitive.

Furthermore, the anti-modern ag groups flaunt their use of the legal system as a weapon, openly admitting their intention of continuing to impede the availability of new products to the detriment of our nation’s farmers and consumers. In previous cases, these litigants have tied up the regulatory pipeline for years. Even when the Supreme Court has decided in favor of the defendants, these constant complainers continue creating controversy and threatening not only further delay but even the destruction of the crop grown by law abiding farmers.

While anti-activists may not understand sound science and live in constant denial of the overwhelming evidence that biotechnology is not only safe but is beneficial, they intrinsically understand how to engineer panic and fear. They expertly manufacture the perception of public outrage and then use it as grounds on which to attack a provision intended to protect America’s farm families from their assault on science. The scorched-earth mentality of their assault dictates that their ability to inflict collateral damage be maintained.

Don’t fall for the self-serving hype disguised as righteous indignation. Assaults on biotechnology in general and Section 733 specifically are assaults on America’s farm families.

Get a Bang out of New Corn Use

Here’s a new use for corn that you can really get a bang out of.

sky-maizeA team of Purdue University students have created a fireworks casing from corn which won the top prize for corn in the school’s annual Student Soybean and Corn Innovation Contests, sponsored by the Indiana Soybean Alliance and Indiana Corn Marketing Council.

Taking first place in the Student Corn Innovation Contest is a team that created a fireworks casing that is biodegradable, lighter and less expensive than what is now available. Pictured here are Alexander Parobek and Rachel Clayton, with a fireworks rocket containing the casing, and Polina Navotnaya and Jake Hoeing, with the casing. They received a $20,000 prize for their efforts.

Listen to an interview with Alex from Brownfield Network: Purdue Corn Innovation Winner

The second-place corn team received a $10,000 prize for their creation called Fog-Away, an anti-fog glass and mirror cleansing solution. Members are Anbo Wang of Jingdezhen, China, a junior in agricultural economics; Mitch French of Pittsboro, Ind., a sophomore in biological engineering; Hannah Doren of Northfield, Ill., a junior in food science; and Benjamin Lins of Racine, Wis., a sophomore in chemical engineering.

The winning soybean team produced Nature Loft, a soy protein fiber insulation that can be used in bedding, including sleeping bags; apparel such as hats, gloves and footwear; and other products such as headphones, and the second-place soybean team developed water-soluble Double Eyelid Glue.

Iowa Governor Brings Benefits of Biofuels to Beltway

corn-ethanol-pump_100172125_sIowa Governor Terry Branstad publicly made the case for the Renewable Fuel Standard and for introducing higher ethanol blends into the market in an eloquently penned opinion piece that ran in the Washington-centric publication Politico. Citing examples of how biofuels have benefited his state and looking toward the future of the industry, Branstad issued this appeal to logic at a time when important biofuels policies face an increasing number of attacks.

In the piece, Branstad not only points to the successes seen in Iowa economically from ethanol production, but he also directly speaks to often-repeated concerns over the impact that higher ethanol blends have on auto engines.

“Cars run well on higher blends of renewable fuel,” he explained. “Iowa’s state trooper fleet runs on E85. Ethanol is higher octane and thus a more powerful fuel. That extra octane provides an advantage to our law enforcement ranks and the high-performing vehicles they rely on daily.”

Branstad’s appeal for a steady hand in guiding the way into an American future that sees the full benefits of biofuels calls upon readers to think through the issues at hand and realize the importance of both the RFS and higher ethanol blends.

“We must not forget that most successful industries and innovations do not mature overnight. Cellphones were around since the 1970s but not widely adopted until the 2000s. And automobiles did not replace horse-drawn carriages in just a few years,” he concluded. “The RFS has been a key driver in this industry’s progress. We should not, and cannot, turn back that progress now.”

To read the piece in its entirety, click here.

Agricultural Education on the Hill

agday-katieThe U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance helped celebrate 40 years of National Agriculture Day this week with a breakfast on Capitol Hill and educational briefing on “The New Language of Food and Modern Agriculture.” More than 150 people — including Ag Day participants, members of the food industry, and Congressional staff — attended the event.

Illinois corn farmer and USFRA “Face of Farming and Ranching” Katie Pratt shared her farm story and the need for others to share their personal stories. “This Ag Day – and every day – I encourage farmers and ranchers from across the country to be active, share their personal stories, and answer questions from their community about how food is grown and raised,” she said. Katie also live tweeted the event @USFRA.

Also on the program was Erika Bowser-Poppelreiter, a Midwest farmer and farming/ranching expert with Ketchum, who presented a briefing on consumer messaging research and how the agriculture industry can work to restore relevance. The event featured a new perspective on food culture today led by farmers and ranchers.

Listen to the whole session here: USFRA Ag Day Educational Session

2013 National Ag Day Activities Photo Album

Ag Day at USDA

usda-agdayOur U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke at the annual National Ag Day banquet Tuesday at the USDA Whitten Bldg.

Secretary Vilsack wished everyone a Happy Ag Day and then talked about American farm productivity, pointing to a chart showing how high the ag sector is compared to other industries since 1948. “American agriculture’s productivity far, far outpaced the entire American economy and its productivity,” Vilsack said. “It’s a remarkable story and it’s in large part a result of American farmers and ranchers embracing new technologies and new ways to do business.” Vilsack added that the main beneficiaries of this tremendous productivity are consumers.

Vilsack spoke to farmer and rancher representatives in Washington D.C. this week for National Ag Day.

Listen to Vilsack’s remarks here: Ag Secretary Vilsack Remarks

2013 National Ag Day Activities Photo Album

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